Communication and conversation are effective only when they are honest. True honesty is relatively rare because it is hard to achieve. It is so much easier to say what a person wants to hear and only the brave want to hear the truth, so the tendency is to pull punches for the sake of an easy life.
One of my personal guiding themes is harmlessness. Imagine what life would be like if everything we did caused minimum harm to self and others. This is a major challenge that demands honesty, not only with others but also with yourself. There is no room here for the easy option. Telling an ineffective colleague that their work is good enough may be easy in the short term - it certainly avoids confrontation. In the long run it is harmful - the colleague settles for second-best and never discovers where their real talent lies; the team pick up the shortfall, lose confidence in the boss and maybe even leave; and the manager is left trying to manage an unhappy team with the inevitable kick-back on the bottom line.
True harmlessness means looking at each situation from the long- and short-term perspective. If an easy life now leads to distress or ineffectiveness in the long run, it is really not an option.
‘What you see is what you get' is a frequently heard phrase, meaning ‘I am forthright and will tell it as I see it.' Presumed to be a truthteller, in fact the speaker is more likely to be one who expects everyone else to accept their life view. This is not harmlessness.
acknowledging the truth as you see it - understanding how a situation impacts on you in your present situation and identifying the truth you believe should be told:
being honest about your intentions - who will benefit/lose from what you have to say?
looking at the truth from the other person's perspective - what is important? Why does it matter? What is needed? Then consider how your own truth looks from that other perspective - what will it achieve? Who will benefit? Who could feel damaged as a result? What is the most likely outcome for the business?
looking forward to see what must happen to ensure that each person feels respected and that the outcome is most effective for the people and the business. What must happen now in order that this is achieved in the future?
re-examining your original truth - does it still feel like the truth, or are there other elements that must be added in? What is the action you actually need to take to ensure harmlessness in the future?
Lee, regional manager at Timpson, knew that a young man in one shop was arriving late for work on a regular basis. The manager had done his best, but nothing was persuading the young man that he must be on time. It was easy to understand - the draw of his first regular income and the resulting social life was too great. He did not want to see the consequences of his behaviour. Lee could have left it for a time, believing that he would settle down once the novelty wore off. However, this would risk a negative impact on the business and the safety of his job if he did not change. To do nothing was potentially harmful.
The first step was to buy him an alarm clock, but this had little effect. So Lee sat down with him and outlined the risks of continuing with the behaviour, including the worst-case scenario - ‘You could lose your job.' This, coupled with the manager calling him at wake-up time for a few weeks, helped to embed a new pattern and he is now back on track. Facing the tough conversation led to a harmless outcome.
In a company I shall not name, I met Kelly (not her real name) who suffered from a bullying boss. Our discussion confirmed that the behaviour was not acceptable and that some action must be taken. Afraid to go to direct to the bully's own boss, she spoke to the HR department, who spoke on her behalf. But this was a tough situation - the difficult manager was a good performer. Known to be poor with people, his results were nonetheless exceptional and he did not like to be criticised. What should the boss do?
This is not an unfamiliar situation by any means, and a classic in the harmlessness stakes:
Don't act, and the high performer will continue to deliver.
Don't act, and the team members will either leave or take the path of least resistance, losing enthusiasm, excitement and commitment to the business.
Don't act, and the word will get around that you condone bad behaviour and that colleagues are less important than the business.
Act, and the high performer could take offence and reduce the effort he puts into work, or leave for pastures new where his behaviour will be accepted
Act, and you give a clear message to colleagues that you do not condone inappropriate behaviour, increasing their respect and trust in you.
Act, and the high performer may be prepared to change his behaviour, which could mean he takes his eye off the ball for a time, reducing his output.
Now look one year ahead:
If no action was taken, you still have your high performer and the numbers are good. However, you have a high recruitment bill and a complaints procedure to deal with. Word in the company is that you care only for the bottom line, so commitment is down. What seemed like the easy option last year is now a major obstacle to the business.
If positive action was taken, you may have lost your high performer, with the resulting loss to the bottom line as you looked for the right person and got them settled in. However, you have a strongly committed team who trust you to listen to them and honour their concerns. They will go out of their way to deliver for you because they have respect for your courage and ability.
Or, the high performer was deeply concerned to hear that he was being a bully. He had not realised the impact he had and was really keen to change. Because of his delight in numbers and delivery, he put people second. Coaching and management support has helped him begin to adapt his behaviour, and the team are right behind him.
There are pros and cons to each action, but it is clear that considering the long-term view is the only way to assess where greatest harm could lie.
It is not easy to tell the truth, and people avoid it for all sorts of reasons:
fear of the unknown - Staying with your own picture of life brings a level of safety. Mindsets determine how we interpret events, leading to well-worn paths of behaviour. To step outside that tried and tested box is scary. To be open to comment from anywhere makes life unpredictable. Consider David Smith from Asda: all 137,000 colleagues are invited to comment when they want to. ‘I get it thrown back at me the moment I don't live the values.' Under those circumstances, life is a challenging experience and not everyone is prepared for that level of honesty.
fear of the tough situations - Real honesty requires a determination, tough spirit and adherence to principles that some are not willing to commit to. Situations like that of the bullying manager separate the successful from the great companies. Being principle-driven requires you to deal with even the thorniest situations, having an open mind and honest intent. And people may not like you in the short term.
loss of power - Knowledge can be seen as power - something to be hugged to the chest for times of need. Honesty requires sharing for the good of the whole, ensuring that everyone has the information that enables them to do their job to best effect. Not only is the power shared, so are the successes. Being a team player means putting personal gain alongside company gain. You are great only when everyone is great. At Flight Centre and Asda, everyone knows how the company is doing. Figures for company and team are shared each week at Asda. At Flight Centre everyone has access to company figures and is given training on how to read a spreadsheet to make sure they understand it. In Honda everyone is considered part of the team - no one role is more important than another. All this is great if you like to be part of a greater team. If you build your sense of self around your status or the knowledge you hold, this is a tough act to be part of.
The best output from a principles-based honest conversation is that all parties understand what the issues are, feel heard, maintain their self-respect and are able to act on decisions for the good of themselves and the business.
There are simple guidelines for such discussions, whether about clear business issues, personal development obstacles or under-performance:
Take time on your own to plan:
Book a comfortable room for the meeting, where you will not be interrupted.
Understand the facts of the situation: find out by talking to everyone involved to get a balanced point of view.
Consider the outcomes you need. Is this one of a series of steps, or do you expect this to be sufficient on its own? What agreements do you need from the other, and what agreements are you willing to make yourself?
Give notice to the other person when you need them to bring specific information, if they need time to plan and think about their input.
If you believe warning of the subject matter may bring unnecessary worry to the other person, think it through carefully to make sure whether that really is the case. Discuss it with a colleague to get a second opinion. Consider how it will impact on the outcome and if it is appropriate.
Study your personal responses to the situation. How personally involved are you? Will the outcomes affect your work or reputation? Does the issue impact on your sense of integrity or your principles? Are you able to be objective? After an honest assessment, clarify whether you can handle the discussion alone or whether you need support or a mediator.
Identify any mindsets that might trip you up - eg assumptions you make about what is right or wrong behaviour. Clarify where these fit with company mindsets and where they are out of kilter. Being conscious of this will stop you being pulled off course. If you think this is an issue, get some support.
At the meeting:
Outline the agenda and where you want to get to.
Set some ground rules
eg clarify whether the subject matter is confidential, agree that people will not talk over each other, that people will be treated with respect, etc.
Set time boundaries, and stick to them.
Set the scene: describe the situation as you understand it, then ask each person to do the same.
Ensure that you listen fully to other accounts, asking questions to make sure you understand. Periodically, rephrase what has been said so that people can affirm that you have understood them
‘So what you are saying is . . .'
Remember: everyone's perception is true for them. Be honest about your own perceptions, work to understand theirs, and help them understand the impact of their behaviour, decisions or actions. This is where you must be honest. Make sure each person leaves understanding fully what they have been told.
Close the meeting with a summary of the points discussed. Write down agreed actions and any concerns going forward, to be distributed to those present. Agree who carries responsibility for which actions and the timelines involved.
After the discussion: - Leave time for the information shared to settle in. - Make individual contact the next day to ensure that those involved are clear on the outcomes and the next steps.
Take the necessary steps to follow through on agreements made, and call the next meeting when appropriate.
Continue with honest conversation. Once you have set the tone, do not let it drop. Being a strong role model for honesty will be a positive force
this includes acknowledging when you have made a mistake or a poor decision. This will have a profound impact on others and encourage them to be equally honest.